#578: She Died a Lady (1943) by Carter Dickson

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Firstly, good heavens the excitement of posting a John Dickson Carr review without then tagging it OOP — Polygon Books have Hag’s Nook (1933), The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), and She Died a Lady (1943) in their stable, and the British Library and Otto Penzler have added more, with more to come.  And after last week’s brilliant and baffling no-footprints murder in a lonely corner of England, and with my broadly chronological reading of Carr’s work bringing She Died a Lady back into my orbit, the stars seemed to be aligning on a reassessment of this, probably the most consistent contender for Best Carr Novel of All Time.

In my memory, I first read this in a post-Constant Suicides daze, around which time I’d also consumed Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942) and so was in raptures at how seemingly cut-and-dried events could, with a simple flourish, suddenly be painted in all the Elysian hues of the finest ingenuity.  And so when Rita Wainwright and Barry Sullivan left footprints in the mud all the way to the Lovers’ Leap at the rear of the property the comely Rita shared with her older husband Alec…and when those footprints did not return but instead took them right over the edge into the 70 foot drop down a near-vertical cliff face and into the waves below, well, none could be more cut-and-dried.  So for those bodies to turn up not merely dashed on the rocks and drowned but also shot at close enough range to leaved powder burns on the corpses…frankly, sensation.

With, er, several years and a goodly few more impossible crime novels under my belt, it’s a delight to be able to say that most of this still stands up.  The 1940s had already seen Carr produce masterpieces like Constant Suicides and The Seat of the Scornful (1941), and Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946)  waited in the wings — and those are just the accepted classics from a six year stretch of Carr at his peak.  There is a thoroughly earned, blithe, easy confidence to Carr’s writing here that’s enriched by the sepulchral threat of World War Two in both reality and fiction, with madness and death apt to explode around author, readers, and characters all lending an undeniably germane air to proceedings:

I am writing this in the middle of November, with a black wind flapping at the windows, and black death on the land. In September the bombers came to London. Only a few nights ago, first with Coventry and then Birmingham, they began their attack on our provincial cities. Bristol or Plymouth, they say, will be next.

Uncommonly for Carr, this is narrated not by a Bright Young Thing with romance soon to be foisted on their horizon — the Inevitable GAD Love Story happens very much off-page — but by elderly (which, from this era, means 65 years old) local GP Dr. Luke Croxley, lending a more reasoned and mature air to speculation where the like of The Unicorn Murders (1935) relied equally heavily on the impetuousness of youth.  His inability to be swayed by the fulsome charms of Molly Grange, or of any other attractive young woman  to feature in proceedings, leads to him reflecting blankly on much of what he sees and hears, and we are party to it along with him and will no doubt overlook the salient points just as comprehensively.  And, every so often, he’s able to chill you just a little bit into the bargain…

What does a murderer look like, when he comes up silently behind his victim?

What had eluded my memory somewhat was just how darned layered events here are.  At his most devious, and he comes within a wafer of that here, Carr was a master at piling up inconsequential events to staggering effect when finally unleashing their collective impact.  Chapter 14 here, in which implications and indications are unfurled time and again so that we might see events as the Henry ‘the Old Man’ Merrivale sees them, might be one of the most devastating pieces of writing in Carr’s distinguished career, with rugs pulled and realisations crashing down all about us.  And it feels all the more heartbreaking because of how slyly and gracefully you’ve been invited to know these people, to see them as people.  Sure, there’s no-one here of quite Fay Seaton’s complexity, but when your heart breaks — and break it surely must, at the end of chapter 19 if nowhere else — goddamn doesn’t it ever hurt.

With a more seasoned eye, aspects of the ending do come the hell out of nowhere, and the guilty party is conveniently identified by more luck than judgement, which brings this back a half-step from the likes of The Reader is Warned (1939) at the pinnacle of H.M.’s achievements.  I’m also not entirely sure I quite buy the explanation of the footprints second time around, though I still love it in principle, and a certain action of H.M.’s to, let’s say, obfuscate the Absolute Key Clue seems to serve no purpose beyond making the reader hope that we’ll get another Crooked Hinge (1938)-esque final chapter re-reversal and, well, we don’t.  I do, however, very much enjoy how he dismisses all flummery with trick footprints, however, and thus this can join with The White Priory Murders (1934) to canonically banish People Going Over Their Footprints and other such chicanery from being admissible solutions (though, in true style, Paul Halter has since found a wrinkle that allows it and remains valid — and, don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler for The Gold Watch (2019); you’ll need to look elsewhere).

To have this available to the general public is a wonderful state of affairs, since it showcases so much of what Carr did better than most and with decidedly fewer flaws.  No, the broad comedy of H.M.’s wheelchair shenanigans aren’t funny, but they also take up very little space and the second instance, especially, captures the man at his most…H.M.-y.  For intelligent, ingenious plotting and scheming it’s pretty hard to top, and gives most modern pretenders a run for their money.  And you can just walk into Waterstones and buy it off the shelf — how exciting!  So do, go now if you haven’t already read this, and let’s hope that a Carr resurgence is (finally) on the way…

~

See also

Ben @ The Green Capsule: The puzzle is fascinating, yet the solution wasn’t quite fulfilling… The story lacks the atmosphere and urgency of other works, but is still an enjoyable read. The reveal of the killer is uniquely done and I really liked how the novel closed out.

Les @ Classic Mysteries: She Died a Lady features Sir Henry Merrivale, the character about whom Carr wrote when using the pen name “Carter Dickson.” As readers of Carter Dickson’s mysteries know, Merrivale was brilliant in his ability to explain impossible crimes – and wildly eccentric and often quite funny in almost every other way. In She Died a Lady, H.M., as he is known, is visiting an artist who lives nearby and who is painting H.M.’s portrait. There are some very funny scenes, particularly one involving Sir Henry, a motorized wheelchair, and what seems to be all the dogs in the village – but the overall tone of the book is anything but funny. Can those impossible murders be explained? It was almost enough to fool Sir Henry Merrivale. Almost.

Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora: As various theories are expounded on how the murder might have been committed, eventually we reach a clever and satisfying conclusion, topped by an epilogue, crucially not written by Dr Croxley, which reveals a wholly unexpected culprit. With its clever story, thankfully avoiding the need to add a gratuitous extra murder to the proceedings, as even Dame Agatha was wont to do at times, and emphasis on character and the recreation of an idyllic little village disrupted by murder and Merrivale whizzing around in a motorised wheelchair after hurting his toe, this makes for a completely satisfying mystery.

61 thoughts on “#578: She Died a Lady (1943) by Carter Dickson

  1. It is sheer Golden Age heaven to have Carr back in print! I got a copy of this almost on day one in fact. Great review JJ – it’s a classic book, beautifully constructed and brilliantly told. Thanks for the shout out!

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    • I, like you, am buying up copies of these as they’re released simply on account of the joy of having Carr back on print. The remaking Bencolins are coming from the BL in 2020, too, so hopefully they’ll “do a Bude/Lorac” and between the BL, Polygon, and Otto Penzler we’ll get some decent representation of the great man in bookshops the world over!

      And to reprint this, too, as opposed to something more recently available, is a fabulous decision: it’s mature, heart-breaking, bonkers, wonderfully clever, and shows Carr’s writing at pretty much top form. And then people could go and buy Constant Suicides, too, and then it’s gonna be love 😍

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      • Great to see this one back in print, but a pity that the BL is doing the Bencolins, which I don’t think come close to the master at his best.

        I forget, is there a reason that HM, who’s big in the War Office, is dicking around at the coast during the height of the war?

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        • H.M. is in Devon having his portrait painted — as a Roman emperor, no less. One feels Carr is simply having fun coming up with any excuse to put H.M. somewhere, following the dictation autobiography in Seeing is Believing…and, hey, why not? They’d be less interesting plots without him.

          The Bencolins…no,l they’re not Carr at his best, but there’s a wild, fearless creativity to that that marks them out. The average reader picking them up isn’t going to be lulled into how similar they are to everything else, and they’ll stand out in the memory, I’m sure, of anyone reading to seven Loracs and however-many Budes, etc. From that perspective, I can see where the BL is coming from, continuing the cover the range of possible styles in detective fiction as they’ve done with everything from the Poisoned Chocoloates Case to the fox-hunting one.

          And then, when people know Carr’s name and remember him…that’s when you hit them with the Big Guns.

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          • True but it does contrast a bit with And So To Murder

            As for the choice of books, yes, the style does distinguish it. I’m guessing the Loracs sell well for them, being straight – very straight – whodunits. I wonder how they’re chosen, as I’ve come across two that are a bit more devious – Checkmate To Murder and Rope’s End Rogue’s End – but we seem to default to, mostly, the countryside settings. I worry at times that we’re in the minority, looking for complex but satisfying plots. Oh, and you can add Bellairs to Bude and Lorac to make a triumvirate.

            Let’s just hope that any Carr converts don’t rush out and read The Hungry Goblin after this one…

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            • Your point about the majority of casual readers not necessarily looking for complex plots is a good one. It’s interesting — and entirely understandable — that the Loracs are marketed on the BL covers as “A London Mystery”, “A Devon Mystery”, etc. — to hook in a non-specialist audience (and, in order to sell in suitable quantities, the non-specialist audience is very much needed) you must offer them a sense of time or place or something else besides the plot. If they were going to be sold on plot alone, they wouldn’t be a non-specialist audience, after all… 🙂

              SDaL is a great choice for a reprint in that regard, because it’s gorgeously written, contains a great deal of atmosphere and locality, and shows the plot machinations at among their best at times (the petrol being let out of the car, etc). This is in part why The Hollow Man being constantly in print baffled me so much: yeah, it’s genius clever, but the sheer dose of Plot involved will turn off any casual readers, and probably consign Carr to a mental Avoid Avoid Avoid list (it nearly did for me, after all…).

              And, in the case of The Hungry Goblin, Carr’s unavailability works in his favour: to read it, one must first find it…

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        • I’ve said it before that I have a hunch the Bencolin books might actually find a foothold with the reading public more easily than some of Carr’s other stuff. I’m thinking in terms of the Gothic feel and the character himself. Modern tastes do seem to lean more towards the slightly ambiguous (morally speaking) detective, and that may have influenced the thinking here. Aside from that, Bencolin’s tales are fun, although his last appearance is a rather flat and lifeless affair.

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          • Well, in Bencolin’s last appearance (The Four False Weapons (1937), after a gap of several years) Carr has gone to a lot of effort to mediate his aggressive nature and make him fit in with more amiable GAD sleuths. There’s even a point where Bencolin himself is moved to reflect on this…and, yeah, I do sort of feel that it would have been wonderful to have the old hellraiser back for one last fling.

            Still, the plot is majestic, however, and so darned complex-yet-simple in the way that only Carr an manage. I don’t know of TFFW is going to be included in the BL tranche, but I’m half-tempted to read the lot of them again in light of their re-emergence. Contrasting them with the rest of the genre, and with Carr in general, would be fascinating.

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            • The Waxworks Murder gets so baroquely weird that I didn’t really have any choice besides loving it. Now that is a book your casual peruser of the BL Crime Classics won’t forget in a hurry.

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          • I do think the Bencolin books are a bit overlooked. With the exception of The Lost Gallows, I thought they were all pretty good. It Walks at Night is an impossibility typical of Carr’s core work, although his story telling hasn’t hit full stride yet. Castle Skull has that bonkers ending that you could never see coming. Waxworks delivers the excitement of the post-Below Suspicion work and has that great scene where Carr dangles a clue to the killer’s identity. And of course, The Four False Weapons… that’s as good as any pre-Crooked Hinge Dr Fell novel, only missing the warmth of Fell’s character.

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            • The more we talk about this, the more I want to reread them. I remember being very struck by how atypical Bencolin was — the references to his clothing are, weirdly, some of the most memorable GAD reading I’ve done.

              Fell’s Four False Weapons would be a very different book, wouldn’t it? As would Merrivale’s The Hollow Man, or Bencolin’s Bowstring Murders. Man, there’s surely got to be some currency in rewriting classic GAD plots but with the detectives swapped out [insert Sophie Hannah joke here…].

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            • In that case, I would argue that The Man Who Could Not Shudder would actually fit better as a Merrivale work – not only because of that bit of mischief, but the setting feels very similar to the Seeing is Believing era books.

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            • And The Blind Barber would perhaps be a better Late Merrivale, eh? Not just because of the tone, but because the trick has always seemed more Merrivalean to me…

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            • “I feel a Bencolin episode of The Men Who Explain Miracles coming on when you are back in the country Ben?”

              Wouldn’t you need Colin as well?

              Thank you, I’m here all week.

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          • I’ve said it before that I have a hunch the Bencolin books might actually find a foothold with the reading public more easily than some of Carr’s other stuff…

            What about Poison in Jest? A strongly Gothic flavored, wintry mystery novel with a good, but not overly complex, plot and has, if I remember correctly, a great example of the false solution. And the story has a direct link to the Henri Bencolin series! However, I think it’s better than most of the Bencolin novels with exception of The Four False Weapons. So it would make for a great reprint for the holiday/winter season next year.

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            • I dunno. I reread that one in early summer after a gap of many years and I came away a bit underwhelmed. Yes, there is strong Gothic atmosphere but I found it a bit of a slog overall. There is the connection to Bencolin but I found it was weakened by a plot that seemed to meander just a bit too much and the sleuth take a long time to appear, and then comes across a rather colorless. I’m not really a fan The Four False Weapons and thought it somewhat squandered a promising setup, and Bencolin has become much too bland, a mere shadow of that earlier incarnation in his melodramatic pomp.

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            • Early Bencolin trumps Late Bencolin any day of the week. If the Carr estate is ever at the point where they’re willing to entertain continuation novels — and, yeesh, I don’t know how I feel about that — my advice would be to get someone to write Bencolin plots set between Waxworks and Weapons. In fact, I’ll do it if they want to pay me…

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            • Or if someone could be persuaded to commission a series of TV productions which included bridging that gap, you could offer to knock out the scripts.
              And I still maintain that Bencolin would be the Carr detective with the greatest potential for screen adaptations.

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          • Now I want to reread Poison in Jest. But if it stands up to rereading, I’ve to disagree with you on both Poison in Jest and The Four False Weapons. The idea of the Alchemist’s Bottle from The Four False Weapons is a good example of why Carr was in a league of his own.

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            • I can see myself coming back to False Weapons at some point out of curiosity. I must admit that I went into it with little prior knowledge and expecting something like one of the other Bencolin stories, although I think I’d had some warning that it might feel watered down to an extent. Of course it’s a completely different book and that old imposter, the weight of expectation, went about its usual business and I came away feeling vaguely cheated, or shortchanged anyway, by it all. And I also read it at a time when i was feeling particularly drained and worn out. Now that I’m aware of what to expect, I might react differently.

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  2. It is heartening, and satisfying, to see Carr gradually coming back into print. And this is such a fine example of his artistry. It’s both a good mystery and a good book, a novel with considerable heart, whose resolution is poignant.
    I know the humor creeping into the character of HM isn’t to everyone’s taste, and arguably doesn’t really work, but it’s not something i feel hurts the book. At any rate, I’d take Carr’s broad, and only intermittently successful, attempts at humor over the sour, black sarcasm of someone like Berkeley any day.

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    • Fair comment; the balancing of humour with mystery is always difficult to manage, which is why the “comic mystery” novel remains so darned elusive, usually highlighting one aspect over the other (exceptions are rocking-horse-teeth rare: Case for Three Detectives being the pinnacle for my preferred strands of both).

      Carr’s jokes rarely detract from his plots, and I believe I’ve floated the idea elsewhere on this site that H.M. only becomes such a figure of fun because of how inseparable he and Fell are at first glance (and didn’t an “Archons of Athens!” escape H.M.’s lips from Carr’s very own pen once?). Typically the jokes only get in the way because we’re desperate to get on with the compelling plot, and I didn’t mind the fun it stirred into this one.

      I wonder if he wanted to make it more deliberately “funny” in places because it’s quite a sober plot and, being set and published during the war, there’s an element of laughing at the hangman…

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        • Berkeley’s sarcasm misses with almost Olympic talent at times, though I suppose humour is such an individual thing that there’s always going to be a fair amount of variation in anyone’s output. The later Sergeant Beef novels by Leo Bruce, for instance, gall me no end.

          Give me the satirical edge of Family Matters by Anthony Rolls any day…

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          • Speaking of which, I’m having a distinctly mediocre time as I near the end of Scarweather by Rolls just now. I have Family Matters around somewhere but it would need to be better than this for me to be in any rush to dig it out.

            When it comes to humor, it is obviously subjective yet I sometimes wonder how much age plays a part. I mean that I once had a greater tolerance for the blacker and meaner variety, but I find that as I’ve got older (into my 50s now) that sarcasm and sourness are less welcome whereas a broader but warmer-hearted approach have more appeal.

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            • Oh, Colin, I hear you on humour and age — I remember laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe when I read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller as a 16/17 year old. Read it again six or seven years ago and gave up halfway through because it was too damn convinced of its own zaniness. Hard work, and not worth sullying the memories.

              Scarweather I understood to be weaker than Family Matters, which is why I started with the latter, and there’s something about the plot — or maybe some reviews I’ve read, I forget — that made me think I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. So, well, thanks for potentially saving me some time, and don’t necessarily dismiss FM on that basis alone!

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            • I’ll read Family Matters at some point for sure – I mean I bought it so I kind of feel I have to. Scarweather isn’t bad as such, just rather plodding, and has one of those very slow stuffed shirts as narrator.

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  3. Carr has been the biggest, most glaring, omission of the current Renaissance Age when it comes to reprints. Rue Morgue Press managed to publish only five reprints before they closed down, Langtail Press went down like a lead balloon and Open Road put out some cheap ebooks of his lesser-known, historical novels. So it’s encouraging to see Carr is finally getting his moment in the sun with proper reprints from bigger publishers with a wider reach. There might be hope for humanity after all.

    I did give your paltry four-stars the evil eye, but I can see where you’re coming from and accept your explanation for deducting a star from this masterpiece.

    No, the broad comedy of H.M.’s wheelchair shenanigans aren’t funny…

    Speak for yourself. The image of H.M. racing through the village in a motorized wheelchair, like Emperor Nero in a chariot race, and frightening villagers made me chuckle like a small child.

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    • I’m judging it possibly a bit too harshly with a mere four stars, I agree…but it’s not quite up to the standards of the likes of Till Death, Reader is Warned, Green Capsule, etc (at least as far as my memory is concerned). Still wonderful, and still in the upper echelon of what the Golden Age produced.

      I actually have the Langtail edition of this, too, having grabbed it when they started to vanish. Those titles were very good, but the editions themselves are…not great. And, in fact, that’s relevant to my post on Saturday…so come back then for more!

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  4. Interesting point on the age of the narrator in this one. This may be Carr’s first novel to use an elderly character for the point of view, although I’m thinking that the characters in The Bowstring Murders and The Red Widow Murders may have been middle aged. The Devil in Velvet obviously features an elderly character (kind of). Starting around the time of The Dead Man’s Knock, Carr started to use older characters, although I think in their 40s.

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    • The contrast between how Nicholas Fenton feels and how he’s able to act in The Devil in Velvet are among the most intriguing parts of a book not lacking in intrigue; perhaps Carr was feeling old and pining for his youth when writing it.

      It’s curious to note the number of times a GAD hero is a young man who lives like an old man — predictable, safe, ‘comfortable’ life — until murder and mayhem shake him out of it. And interesting, too, to note how many romantic comedies (and thrillers, I guess) from the 1930s and 40s follow that exact same model (Bringing Up Baby being the classic example). What’s fiction’s problem with early-onset middle age?!

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      • I wonder if – similar to the idea of getting the reader to want to be that rest detective himself – if the image of thr relaxed life with a mystery thrown is/was an aspiration for thr readers of the time? I can imagine a young man reading Carr and thinking I want to be that man, sunning myself, playing tennis, chasing a girl etc, and then running alongside the Old Man at the same time. Just a thought?

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  5. This review just filled me with love for his book again since reading it at the start if my blogging days. I an with you in the solution, and I still wrestle with it. It has that funny thing of one day feeling ludicrous and the next day feeling like it was brilliant. But the deep analysis into the footprints themselves really does help, and seems to me one of those rare times when a police force is shown to be very competent and thorough in a GAD novel.

    And I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, this is still my favourite ‘title-used-as-a-line-in-the-book’ moment in GAD ever. So chilling and tragic, wow!

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  6. It’s all about perspective, of course, but I’m never as focused on the how of a howdunit as you guys are. I’m all about the who and the why. This is the reason I sometimes pooh pooh books that you all love and adore books you think are only fair because the method was bleah or overdone or simply stupid. I do remember feeling a little shruggy about the footprints at the end of SDaL, but this is one of those Carr novels where the who element is so good that I consider it one of my favorite Carr novels of anyincarnation!

    Christie fan that I am, I have often missed the father-son relationship because she simply doesn’t do that one too much. Her strength was mothers and daughters, and that is easily explained by the author’s (and her siblings’) own relationships with their parents. We have some great mothers and sons as well (hello, Allertons!). But like Christie’s own dad, the presence of a father figure was largely missing.

    That might be one of the reasons I always loved Ellery Queen, since the father-son relationship is one of its great strengths. And in SDaL, the underlying father-son relationship between Luke and his son is just so sweet. Luke is one of my favorite narrators in Carr for a number of reasons, and this is one of them.

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    • I’m frequently a big fan of Carr’s “who” — he hides his culprits very well (often because they’re required to do something so gosh-darned ridiculous, c.f. Seeing is Believing) and has a habit of unveiling them with a real flourish. The low-key way the killer is revealed in this is simply magnificent, even if their identity is a little…well, I know he accounts for it in the final chapter, but I still feel there’s an element of disclosure here (much like the real solution of The Crooked Hinge).

      Filial relationships…yeah, does Carr do much of that? There are frequently the affianced, a few husbands and wives, maybe a bit of courtship, but maybe the father/son dynamic here stands out so much because it’s not really touched upon in Carr’s own work, too.

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      • In my own experience Carr is the most successful author at hiding the who. I can only think of maybe five books where I figured out the culprit. I’d list them but that seems like it might highlight the obvious killer. It’s crazy though – time after time after time Carr gets me with the identify of the killer.

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        • I’ve said before that, prior to having read any Carr, I read an article somewhere online that claimed the thing about Carr’s novels was the “how”: essentially, it said that the culprit was always obvious, and it was more a case of how that person could possibly have committed this crime.

          And, all these years later, that still bugs me, because the guy could hide a killer practically anywhere, and catches me — and, I hope, the majority of his readers — out time after time after time. Man, if I could find that article again I think I’d go back and insist that they change it, offer a posthumous apology to JDC, and never write about detective fiction ever again.

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        • I have to disagree with you and J.J. most vehemently here, the who is Carr’s achilles heel. You’re quite right when you indicate that it’s hard to find Carr’s culprits before the denouements, and there’s one great reason for that: They’re often hardly in the book at all!

          Breaking Knox’s rule #1 is all right if you do it once or twice, but Carr had an unfortunate tendency to do it much too often.

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          • Carr’s killers do tend to play a more diminished role in the story than was conventional for the era, I’ll give you that. I can only think of four examples off the top of my head though where the villain is hardly in the book. Of course I can’t list them because that would hint towards solutions.

            I wouldn’t say it’s unfair in all cases though. There’s one particular early work where a clue is dangled so beautifully in front of the reader’s face. Even though the culprit seemed to come from nowhere, I love it to this day.

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      • The identity of the killer and the reveal of them in SDaL is something very special indeed. I am starting to concoct a theory, based on Carr’s incredible use of contextualisation, in how he changes the way he reveals/chooses/hides a killer based on the TYPE of book his is trying to write and the feeling if that book. SDaL is very specific in that sense. The tragedy of the killer in general tragedy of the book and the other characters is so very profound.

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  7. All these new reprints… 🤩 The Polygon covers do make for an attractive package to showcase on one’s bookshelf. 🤩🤩

    I wonder if some readers might find your overall rating to be slightly on the strict side – given the reputation the title has garnered as one of the best, if not the best, of the Carter Dickson/HM oeuvre.

    But personally, I can see where you are coming from. It is within the stronger end of the oeuvre, but I’ve always wondered if my preference for it has been a matter of relative merit. In that some of the best CD/HM titles, like “Judas Window”, “Plague Court” and “Peacock Feathers”, are, I think, above average to good rather than great – and so “She Died a Lady” stands out by comparison.

    Also, I read “She Died a Lady” back-to-back with “Till Death Do Us Part” – which I think is JDC’s/CD’s at his very best. And the comparison made me think “She Died a Lady”, while very good, wasn’t quite top-drawer.

    Having said that, I still purchase copies of “She Died a Lady” as presents for friends, to acquaint them with the wonders of Golden Age mystery writing. I usually do it as a bundle, together with that particular Agatha Christie novel for comparison – as I think “She Died a Lady” is Carr’s response to that novel. And then I ask them which novel they prefer: so far, 2 friends prefer one novel, and 1 friend prefers the other.

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    • I had thought of including a comment about whether or not She Died a Lady would now make it into my Top Ten Carrs, but I’ve been moved to reflect recently on the concept of preferential listing and how it’s only ever really an “in the moment” thing and likely to change if addressed even two months later. Someone stumbling upon my list of, say, the ranked Paul Halter short stories might take that as definitive — only from my perspective, you understand — whereas given the same twenty titles and not being allowed to refer to my earlier list, I’d doubtless come up with an entirely different ordering today.

      The prose in SDaL is sublime, though, and it’s possible to put all other considerations aside and simply revel in how fabulously wrought each individual line is at times. The midway shock — er, is there one? — and other elements could be criticised and drag it up and down lists for the rest of civilisation, but from quality of writing it’s easily in Carr’s top 5. And from that perspective alone it warrants buying and handing out to as many people as possible. And, hey, now they can even buy it for themselves…!

      As to the Polygon reissues, they are beautiful, aren’t they? That’s something that will be touched upon in this Saturday’s post…

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    • …I think “She Died a Lady” is Carr’s response to that novel.

      Someone else noticed! Good job on indoctrina… uh… promoting these classics to your friends!

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  8. JJ – great post as usual and the comments that followed make for nice reading as well. This was only the 2nd Carr that I ever read and this one has stuck with me. The way I judge a book is how it made me feel during and after reading it. There is a haunting, achingly beautiful quality to SDaL that I don’t experience often when reading. I am pleased to see this back in print. Happy reading to those yet to experience this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This, The Burning Court, He Who Whispers, and (arguably) The Hollow Man have about their conclusions something which makes you really dwell on them when you’re done. I’d include The Crooked Hinge on that list, too, now I think about it. There’s just something about the tone of them that, once I got to the answers of the various riddles, made them all stick around, as if Carr is acknowledging the tragedy that must go hand-in-hand with the events that have unfolded.

      Sayers had Wimsey crying on the morning the criminals he caught were executed; I like to think Carr was a bit more subtle than that when he wanted to be.

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  9. So, JJ, if my only exposure to Carr is beginning of Hollow Man and the lecture contained within, his works during the early 1940s would be the most recommended batch? Both Merrivale and Gideon novels?

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    • Yes, where to start with Carr?

      Well, thankfully The Case of the Constant Suicides and She Died a Lady would be some of the best places in my humble opinion, and Polygon having reissued them is therefore perfect. It will hopefully give a lot of people who are new to Carr an experience that’s among the best possible to start with.

      Elsewhere, The Eight of Swords is a good Christie pastiche, The Unicorn Murders has a lot of fun with identity in a limited cast, and The Four False Weapons is pure plot-driven craziness that might be — along with Death-Watch — about the most dense and involved writing he ever did…

      Many will disagree, but I’d say take your pick from the above. And happy reading!

      Like

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